A flying visit to Cambridge

We arrived in Cambridge in the early afternoon, later than we would have liked. In November, days are short so we’d have only a few hours of daylight to see the sights. We hadn’t planned the visit very carefully.

King's College in the background
King’s College in the background

We parked on Queen’s Road, a narrow, tree-lined street behind some of the colleges.

“We seem to be where the colleges are. Let’s go have a look.”

“Wait. I’m hungry. I thought we’d have lunch first and then go sightseeing.”

“I’m not hungry. Besides, I don’t know this place.”

“I don’t either but we can ask for directions!”- My stomach punctuated this statement with a loud roar.

In the end, we decided to carpe diem and visit King’s and Clare Colleges since we were parked just outside. We crossed some fields called The Backs towards the River Cam and crossed the Clare Bridge. A few visitors were admiring the autumnal colours and watching the punters glide past. Traffic on the river was pretty heavy. At the other side of the stone bridge, the eye wandered to the Scholar’s Gardens, quintessentially English.

A lull in the punter traffic on the River Cam
A lull in the punter traffic on the River Cam

Clare College was founded in 1326 by Lady Elizabeth de Clare, a granddaughter of King Edward I (or Edward Longshanks, the “baddie” from the film Braveheart. Hollywood does make for good references if not historical accuracy). Clare is the second oldest college in Cambridge.

The University of Cambridge, which celebrated its 800 anniversary in 2009, is a confederation of schools, faculties, departments and 31 colleges. Students live and attend lessons in each college. Professors teach to small groups in sessions called supervisions.

View of King's College chapel
View of King’s College chapel

Next to Clare is King’s College, which was founded in 1441 by a king, Henry VI, as its names clearly states. I felt the excitement of walking across the courts, past the porter’s lodge and trying to catch a glimpse (the porter caught me red-handed and just smiled,) of breathing in the long history of one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I think I even felt more intelligent just being there!

King’s College Chapel is an amazing example of late Gothic (or decorated) style. Its fan vaulted ceiling is exquisite, as are the medieval stained-glass windows. Somebody was practicing, or maybe tuning, the organ, which added to the atmosphere. Unfortunately for me, there were quite a lot of people for such a narrow chapel, so the experience was somewhat marred.

King's Parade outside King's College
King’s Parade outside King’s College

King’s College is a “green” institution in that they make every effort to improve environmental sustainability. Students can grow their own vegetables in allotments, for example. In the Back Lawn, Rare Breeds are kept to keep the grass short and thus provide growing conditions for wildflowers and herbs. Besides, their poo, ahem, manure, is a cozy environment for insects, part of the food chain also.

By then, we were hungry and thirsty, so we walked to King’s Parade, the main drag. Tea houses, tourist tat shops, churches and colleges compete for your attention. In the street, bikes compete with cars for right of way and parking space. Pedestrians need to be careful when crossing the street; you never know where a cyclist at top speed can come from.

The Cambridge University Press bookshop
The Cambridge University Press bookshop, the longest continuously operating bookshop in England, where books were first sold in the 1580s, according to that round blue sign above the door.

We browsed the stalls at Market Square: organic fruit and veg, crafts, imports, clothes and the delicious smell of freshly made crepes. Street performers entertained visitors.

The sun was setting and the time on the parking meter was running out. King’s College was closed so we couldn’t walk across to our car. We took a detour round the side along Trinity Street. We walked past the Cambridge University Press bookshop. I would have loved to spend a happy hour between the books but there was no time. The CUP logo reminded me of all the English as a foreign language classes I either took or taught back home.

Cows grazing in The Backs
Cows grazing in The Backs